A few weeks ago, I was talking with my client, Jeremy, about his habit of relentlessly replaying his interactions with customers as he walks home from work. He analyzes his night looking for mistakes and questioning his own behavior.
Last week I wrote about my own habit of rehearsing, rehashing, and even revising my communication with others. Just as I found some justification for my habit—it’s valuable to think before we speak—I also find some justification for my client’s habit. It’s valuable to engage in thinking for the purpose of personal growth—if my interactions with others cause me suffering, then it’s worthwhile to review them, analyze my own behavior, and imagine how I can change it.
However, like me, Jeremy was not necessarily using this practice to grow as a person. Instead, his ego used the review session for the purpose of blaming, punishing, and shaming him. Constant review of interactions keeps us locked in the past in a way that urges us to identify with bad feelings and obsessive attention to potential encounters keeps us living in the future and reinforces the illusion that if we get the words just right we can be in control.
As Jeremy and I talked about this habit, he agreed it didn’t serve him well. Then in a moment of total clarity he asked, “Well, okay but then what am I supposed to do with my mind?” I love that question! While the answer is focus on the present moment, be mindful, I’ve noticed that too often, what we think of as mindfulness is, instead, just pushing thoughts away.
Next week, (yikes, a 3-part blog post!), I’m going to write about what we might do with our minds instead of stewing about the past and future. But first, I want to encourage all of us to become students of our own mind. Until we know what it is we’re doing with our mind, it can be difficult to put alternatives into practice.
Specifically, we need to increase our awareness of engaging in thinking that is detrimental to our happiness. I learned this exercise in Martha Beck’s life coach training program. Use the alarm clock on your phone and set it for two or three random times during your waking hours. When it rings, stop what you’re doing and write down the answers to two questions. First, what is my mind doing? Not, what am I thinking about but what is my mind doing—racing, fretting, blaming. Second, how do I feel in my body? Name the places and the feelings—stomach churning, neck muscles tensing. Try to do this for three or four days. There’s so much information in this exercise about how we treat ourselves. Among other things, you’ll notice how often you are punishing yourself with your thoughts and how often those thoughts are rehearsing, rehashing, and revising interactions with other people. I’ve noticed that I can produce the same physical distress I felt during a difficult conversation just by letting it play on a loop in my mind–even when an unpleasant encounter has ended I can keep the pain going. That helps no one.